A new effort aims to find ways to kickstart economic growth along The Rapid’s Silver Line bus route from Grand Rapids though southern Kent County.
The Interurban Transit Partnership, colloquially known as The Rapid, has secured $945,000 in funding for a study that will identify strategies to spur development along the Silver Line route that connects Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming.
Nearly 75 percent of the funding for the study, $686,000, will come in the form of a grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The rest will be paid for by a new $174,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation and $25,000 in grants from each of the three municipalities.
The Rapid’s Silver Line launched in 2014 as Michigan’s first Capital Investment Grant project, the FTA’s primary grant program, and the state’s first bus rapid transit route (BRT). The route runs south along Division Avenue from 60th Street to Michigan Street, looping through downtown Grand Rapids and connecting the city to Kentwood and Wyoming. With covered stations, raised platforms, and dedicated lanes with traffic signal priority, the BRT functions as a lower-cost alternative to light rail.
However, the economic development that many experts expected to follow the significant investment has not yet materialized along South Division Avenue.
“What was lost in translation was this (investment) doesn’t magically create all of these great things that we’ve seen around the country,” Nick Monoyios, long-range planner for The Rapid, told MiBiz. “There has to be intentionality from so many other stakeholders and jurisdictions and municipalities that are following through, because buildings don’t just pop up because you’re building BRT.”
The new study primarily will focus on the 7-mile stretch from Wealthy Street to 60th Street, according to Monoyios. He said this area was chosen because it is outside of downtown Grand Rapids, where active economic development already is underway, and contains significant portions of underutilized land primed for redevelopment.
The grant for the Silver Line study is among a total of $16.6 million awarded by the FTA to 20 organizations around the country in a “very highly competitive” process, Monoyios said.
The Division Avenue corridor at the southern end of the line has the highest total population, greatest density and most transit-dependent residents compared to other routes, offering significant potential development opportunities, according to The Rapid.
In the last four years, new development along the route was mostly limited to a handful of fast food restaurants and other small businesses, as MiBiz previously reported. Then, in November, a 36-unit apartment building project broke ground on the former site of Burton Heights United Methodist Church, near the corner of Burton Street SE and Division Avenue. The $9.4 million project is the first multifamily construction in the Garfield Park neighborhood in 30 years, according to a statement.
LINC UP, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit, is the majority owner and co-developing the project with Dwelling Place and Orion Construction.
Although nonprofit organizations like LINC UP and Dwelling Place and each of the municipalities have been working on development in the area for years, they have not come together in a corridor-wide effort to comprehensively guide development and growth, Monoyios said. This grant will allow the region to overcome this barrier.
“LINC, Dwelling Place, Orion, everybody is going be engaged, and that’s what so great about the scope of this $1 million planning study,” he said. “We can be very thorough and exhaustive about who’s at the table, how we approach this, and the amount of time that we have so that the resources are there, and the willingness for all of these stakeholders and jurisdictions to do something really magical in the corridor.”
According to The Rapid, average weekday ridership along the corridor has increased by 37 percent since the Silver Line’s launch, including a 34-percent increase in Saturday ridership, a 45-percent increase in Sunday ridership and a total annual ridership increase of 39 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Last month, The Rapid announced that October 2018 was the highest month of Silver Line ridership ever at 86,343. The previous record was 84,735 in October 2015.
Yet, statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the percentage of workers who use public transportation has remained around 5 percent since at least 2009 in the 49507 ZIP code, which comprises much of the South Division corridor through Grand Rapids.
Last year, the staff of the Grand Rapids Planning Department and a group of residents and business owners from the South Division corridor began meeting to generate a “development without displacement” Area Specific Plan. According to organizers, the intent of the plan is to create a framework for future development by balancing existing businesses and residents with new opportunities for a sustainable mix of housing, businesses and institutions “to raise the overall quality of life.”
“The concern is the displacement part,” Jose Nietes, planning aide for the City of Grand Rapids, told MiBiz. “The thing that I love about this plan and everything that has been going into it has been the authenticity and the transparency.”
Nietes believes intentionality and genuineness are the reasons the city planners have had success engaging residents. At a community meeting in May, the group surveyed residents about the assets that currently exist in the area around South Division. According to the results, about 75 percent of respondents reported that they had lived in the community for 10 years or less.
When asked what made South Division unique, common answers included the variety of food options, diversity of businesses and “beautiful buildings.” When asked what economic opportunity meant to them, respondents said education, jobs and job training.
Mary Dengerink, who has lived in the South Division Corridor for 46 years and has been active in the development of the Area Specific Plan, told MiBiz she and her neighbors hope the first new businesses to come to the area include grocery stores and banking facilities. Only three national bank branches have offices on South Division from Wealthy Street to 60th Street, according to Google Maps. In the same area, there are about 10 check-cashing, cash advance or money transfer services, which often charge steep convenience fees.
Street safety also remains a top concern of residents, according to Dengerink.
“The neighbors talk about the Silver Line as an asset, and yet they also talk about the busy traffic coming through on South Division like it’s just a corridor and not so much a neighborhood,” she said.
According to the results of the Planning Department survey, the respondents were “an even split” between riding the bus and driving a car as their means of transportation. However, even with Silver Line access, residents of the corridor still feel like a sequestered community, according to sources.
“People imagine having a neighborhood with some retail that is attractive to others, not just the people in the neighborhood, like crafts and art and music and all of the things that enrich our lives,” Dengerink said. “But in order to have that, those resources must be supported by more consumers.”
Segregation is an issue in both directions, according to Nietes.
“This corridor is really close to the downtown area, but we have noticed that when we have community engagement events downtown, they don’t feel comfortable coming to the area because of their background or where they’re from,” Nietes said. “The fact that residents don’t feel like they belong or fit into the downtown area says a lot about the separation.”
DRIVING THE VISION
The city’s Area Specific Plan should wrap up as the new FTA grant begins and will be used to inform the study, according to Monoyios.
“This planning study is not about coming in and bulldozing and redoing everything that is already in motion,” he said. “The trick is the very careful navigation between ensuring that what this vision becomes is in the best interests of the existing community.”
According to The Rapid, six main performance measures will be monitored throughout the project and beyond: property values, land utilization, all transportation modes, change in ridership on the Silver Line and connecting routes, investment in construction projects over time, and the availability of affordable housing.
The first four months of the study will focus on researching existing housing, land use and jobs, Monoyios said. By the end of about 15 months of planning, the investment should produce ways to intensify land use, improve zoning and incentivize development that will maximize the health and wellbeing of the community.
“It’s taken some time to come to fruition but the hope and promise and the excitement of this planning study is that we’re focusing here, we’re getting everybody together, and we’re really going to make something happen,” Monoyios said. “That breathes confidence, and I think that eventually will trickle down to the banks, to the developers, and so on.”